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The Perception of Place 

Landscape as Muse at Plaza

A hundred people standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon will all be experiencing it in slightly different ways. The same breathtaking view might evoke memories of childhood adventures, hope for the future or a somber sense that time is passing. We project our personalities and histories onto nearly everything we see and do -- making it hard to know just how others see what we are seeing. One of the few windows we have into shared experience is art.

Well-crafted art, whether it's a painting, poem, sculpture or song, can show us another individual's experience, offering moments of intense recognition and often surprise. Local artists Libby George and Emily Silver provide some of these moments in their new work being shown at Plaza in Arcata.

George and Silver work in different mediums and in very different styles. George has been working in pastels for more than 30 years, creating atmospheric landscapes and interiors. Silver has also been painting since the 1970s, but she works primarily in watercolor and her style is more abstract -- as much about the qualities of the paint as the image created by it. Despite their differences, George and Silver do share some common ground: turning to landscape as muse and trying to capture the sense of a place more than the place itself.

For George, living and working in Humboldt County is a huge factor in her art. In her expressive landscapes, the quality of light is immediately recognizable. "The light here -- there's so much water in the air all the time ... the light is diffused," she says. This diffused light, which causes the landscape to blur at a distance, helped shape her style. "I go visit my sister in Arizona, and you can see the mountains far away and they're sharp -- there's no water in the air and everything is sharp and clean lines. But back here on the coast and, I mean, 30 feet away you start losing edges. ... I think it's just extremely beautiful," George says. "This area totally is the reason that my work looks like it does. If I moved to Arizona, I'd have to start all over!" George laughs.

George begins her creative process outside, making accurate sketches of what she observes. Arcata neighborhoods are a favorite subject, her eye often drawn to smaller structures rather than more prominent buildings.

After her sketch is completed, George brings it back to her studio and begins to transform it from simply a record of location to something that evokes a mood. "I actually color everything in like a coloring book and then I basically destroy it," George explains. "I just rub everything around and lose the edges, and I totally destroy the image so that it's just kind of a blur. And then I start bringing the buildings or the trees back slowly. ... I just kind of go back and forth between bringing the shape and then letting the shape go away. ...I guess I'm trying to recreate the feeling of it more than an actual representational painting of it." George says. The resulting work blends the ethereal and earthly in a way that very much captures the sense of our local light and landscape.

Despite the fact that Emily Silver lives in Humboldt County and keeps her studio in Ferndale, her work is inspired by the desert. Originally from Colorado, Silver maintains a very strong connection to the desert areas of western Colorado and Nevada.

It is a landscape filled with compelling contradictions for Silver. She is drawn to it, she feels a spiritual connection with it and yet there is also the underlying sense of danger there. "I like the edginess of being in the desert," she says. "It's always got some discomfort involved. ... I try to get a lot of those contradictory feelings into my work." She accomplishes this by combining vague, irregular shapes with more regular or predictable forms like grids. Sometimes she will slightly offset the grids to heighten the sense of disorientation. "I'm really interested in illusion and hallucination and mirage and epiphany -- things that are very ephemeral and vague, and I'm interested in making paintings about those things," says Silver. "They're not going to look like landscapes. They are more like moments of clarity or perception."

Watercolor is an important element in her creative process, offering opportunities for discovery and insight. Silver describes the hydrology of watercolor: the suspension of pigment particles in the water, the evaporation, and the resultant patterns the pigment particles leave on the surface of the paper. "It's sort of a microcosm of what's happening all the time in land," Silver says, "and that's why I think it's so perfect." Perfect for work that more closely resembles elements of the landscape than a visual reproduction of it.

Silver's work at Plaza, primarily from a series entitled "Salt Flats," uses a palette suggestive of sunlight, rock and minerals, together with shapes that call to mind geological formations and patterns, to create work that captures the feeling of place without depicting the landscape explicitly. The viewer is more directly affected by sensation than by scene.

Works by George and Silver are on display at Plaza, 808 G St., through Oct. 30. A reception for the artists will be held in conjunction with Arts! Arcata on Friday, Sept. 14.

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Jason Marak

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